I Corinthians 6:9-20; The Message translation (attached at end)
May 6, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
One of my first years in ministry, I was asked to give the sermon at the high school Baccalaureate. Back in those days, all of the churches still gathered every June to honor the graduating seniors in a joint worship service but even then, the Baccalaureate tradition was struggling to stay alive: high schoolers were increasingly diverse in their faith backgrounds and decreasingly interested in observing the traditions of their parents. Preaching the Baccalaureate sermon to a bunch of bored teenagers was not a highly sought out honor and I suspect I was asked to preach it because I was the new kid in town and none of the other ministers wanted the job.
Ellie Riber was our church secretary at the time, and knowing that she had raised three children I asked her, “Ellie, what do you think I should preach about? What do high schoolers want to hear about?”
And I’ll never forget her answer: “Sex,” she said without hesitation. “Talk about sex and they’ll hang on your every word.”
I did actually take her advice and I opened my sermon with a talk about sex, or at least, I talked about the strange sex life of certain animals found in nature. For example, there is the sad story of the male Australian antechinus, a small mouse-like animal who enters puberty just before his first birthday and when he does, goes on a rampant sexual frenzy, engaging in so much sex that he disintegrates! You see, the male antechinus only produces sperm for a very short time and so he has to speed-mate to get as much of his DNA into the genetic pool as possible before his sperm is gone. However, this sexual mania so exhausts him that his body starts to fall apart: his fur begins to slough off and his immune system is so depressed that he becomes riddled with gangrene, and yet still, he does not stop. He continues to mate with any female who will have him though as scientist Diana Fisher wryly points out, “By that time, females are, not surprisingly, avoiding [him].” The poor guy eventually literally falls apart and dies a few weeks shy of his first birthday, “along with every other male antechinus in the area.” They literally flame out in an orgy of sex. 1
As you can imagine, opening with such a vivid object lesson certainly grabbed the attention of the kids at Baccalaureate that day but unfortunately, since that was in the ancient past before the advent of computers, I no longer have that sermon and don’t remember what point I made based on my opening illustration. Note however, that though I can’t remember the point, I remember the illustration because teens aren’t the only ones for whom sex is a potent topic. In fact, I imagine I caught the attention of everyone here before I even mentioned the poor male antechinus: you were listening as soon as I said the word “sex,” because even if we are no longer drenched in adolescent hormones, sex remains an attention grabber. Whether out of interest or out of discomfort, we react strongly to matters of sex when they are discussed publicly, especially when they are discussed from the pulpit. As I mentioned last week, I am preaching a series called, “The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same,” about the issues confronting the early Christian church that confront us still today and the most familiar of those issues — and the most contentious still — is the issue of sex. 90% of today’s arguments among Christian groups revolve around questions about sexual behavior: Does our faith affect the way we view sex and should it? How much of the Bible’s teachings on sex, grounded in a patriarchal culture thousands of years old, should remain applicable to our views on sex today? Does the advent of birth control, unknown to early Christians, change the rules for sexual encounters? And most of all, how do we go about making all of these decisions?
Let me cut right to the chase: although the Christian church has gotten quite specific over the years about acceptable and unacceptable sexual practices, I think listing a bunch of does and don’ts misses the point of the biblical teaching about sex, especially when we turn to Paul’s thoughts on the matter. If all of this sex talk has made you uneasy, you can relax because I am not going to get into specifics in this sermon. The rest of my sermon will be G rated, though we might skirt a little close to a PG rating when we look at the scripture reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which is where I want to turn now.
Paul had written to the churches at Corinth because he had received word that the newly minted Christians in that Roman city were arguing about how many of their previous cultural practices they could keep and how many now needed to be discarded in light of their new faith. Could they eat food that had been prepared for pagan ceremonies, they wondered? Should their life in Christ affect their choice in clothing or hair style? And what about sex? As much as sex is a hot button topic for any church, it was more so in the the congregations of Corinth because in first century Corinth, prostitution was legal and was acceptable a diversion as playing checkers over a glass of wine. Corinth was one of the largest cities on the Mediterranean Sea and provided passage from the Mediterranean to the Aegean Sea so people from all over the ancient world poured in and out of the city. Men thought nothing of stopping by the local house of prostitution while conducting business in the city and the sex trade provided for every sexual proclivity. Paul names the various sexual wares for sale in his letter to the Corinthians — fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, and sodomites — and these English translations of Paul’s words have been so emotionally loaded that we almost cannot hear them without applying them to all human sexual activity. It is crucial for us to understand, however, that Paul was not talking about mutually beneficial relationships; Paul was condemning the Corinthian cultural practice of buying sex. He was condemning the view that sex is just one more bodily impulse that can be gratified at the local mall. To accurately understand Paul’s word, you have to imagine a colleague at work saying to you, “Yeah, after I’m done here I’m going to go grab a slice of pizza, a glass of beer, and a prostitute, and then I’ll head home to watch the game on ESPN. Want to come?”
Paul’s condemnation of Christians participating in the Corinthian sex trade is grounded in his understanding that following Christ is not just a spiritual decision but is an embodied decision. Paul told the Corinthians, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” meaning that your body is the vehicle through which you express Christ to the world. If you have Christ’s spirit dwelling in you, it will be manifested in the way you reach your physical hands into your physical pockets and pull out a tangible wallet to give real money to someone in need. The love of Christ is manifested in the way your actual physical tongue forms spoken words of caring and forgiveness and conversely in the way your real-life teeth bite off all of the words of cruelty you are inclined to speak. You may feel Christ in your heart, and meditate on his presence with your mind, but your body is the only vehicle you have for actually personifying to others the spirit of Christ that dwells within and so every act of your body, Paul says, becomes a sign-post of the character of Christ’s love.
And what is the predominate character of Christ’s love? It is concern for the other person. In his letter to the Romans, he says, “The kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
Going back then to the Corinthians, we can see then why Paul was concerned about their attitudes toward sex: by treating sex as a commodity they had turned the sexual partner into an object to be bought and sold, and if one person treats the other as an object, there can be no mutual upbuilding, and therefore no expression of Christ in that relationship. It turns out that Paul’s words to the Corinthians weren’t just words about our sex lives but were an warning to the way in which we conduct all of our relationships. In spite of the fact that so many Christians have used this passage as a bludgeon to condemn LGBTQ people, I would argue that Paul is not trying to make a list of acceptable and unacceptable kinds of sex because Paul is never concerned about whether Christians are following rules that will make them individually sanctified. Paul’s concern is always instead about how our behaviors help or hinder other people and whether we are working for the mutual upbuilding of all we encounter. He is reminding the Corinthians — and us — that Christ’s love is expressed by making sure that we never treat other people as objects for our own gratification but always see every person as equally loved by Christ, as one to be respected, honored, nurtured, and built up.
When we understand Paul’s words in this way, suddenly his letter to the Corinthians becomes relevant to all of us in areas way beyond the bedroom. Think of all of the ways in our daily lives that we treat other people as objects for our own gratification rather than real people with their own needs and concerns. We leave a lousy tip for a waiter struggling to manage too many tables because we were on a tight schedule and wanted faster service. We are impatient with a colleague for yattering on about a personal problem that holds no interest for us. We burden our children with unrealistic expectations because we think of them as extensions of our own dreams and not as people in their own right. We make objects of other people every day in so many ways, as we move through our lives unconcerned about the humanity of others, thinking of them instead only as the means to satisfy our own needs. And so the solution to all of our questions about what kinds of sexual encounters are allowed for Christians and which are prohibited turns out to be very simple — those that are mutually upbuilding are allowed while those that treat the sexual partner as a means to gratify one’s own needs are not.
And so in the end, it comes down to what it has always come down to for Christians — the gospel message is this: whether in the workplace, or in the home, in the mall or on the streets, in the sanctuary or in the bedroom, every encounter with another person must express our commitment to Christ by our concern for the mutual upbuilding of the other.
Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.
Just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean that it’s spiritually appropriate. If I went around doing whatever I thought I could get by with, I’d be a slave to my whims.
You know the old saying, “First you eat to live, and then you live to eat”? Well, it may be true that the body is only a temporary thing, but that’s no excuse for stuffing your body with food, or indulging it with sex. Since the Master honors you with a body, honor him with your body!
God honored the Master’s body by raising it from the grave. He’ll treat yours with the same resurrection power. Until that time, remember that your bodies are created with the same dignity as the Master’s body. You wouldn’t take the Master’s body off to a whorehouse, would you? I should hope not.
There’s more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, “The two become one.” Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never “become one.” There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for “becoming one” with another.
Or didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.